Becoming a Citizen in an Election Year

This country gave my family of immigrants everything we have, but I never felt I had a say in how it’s run until I became a citizen. 

Illustration of Latina Mom Voting in Election José Luis Merino 
Until recently I was among the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. I came here from Mexico as a 12-year-old girl and was the last in my family to become an American. As I took my citizenship oath at the Los Angeles Convention Center this March, it hit me that I finally get to call this country my country. During the ceremony, I cried when President Obama welcomed us as new citizens in a taped message, and I choked up while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I had never paid such close attention to the words; they suddenly meant so much more.

That same day, I registered to vote. I want to set an example for my daughters—Krista, 4, and Sabina, 18 months—and make civic engagement a normal part of their life. I didn’t have that growing up as an undocumented immigrant. My three siblings and I were taught from an early age to keep our heads down. We had to do everything right because we were guests in this country. My dad, who instigated our move here, would always say, “Don’t throw trash on the floor; be careful; follow the rules.” We lived in fear of getting kicked out. We steered clear of the border and never went near an airport.

My father also made sure that we earned our keep. We didn’t come to this country to take, he’d often say. That’s how we built our Oaxacan restaurant, Guelaguetza—we were able to obtain a business license for it despite our status. The whole family worked together to turn it into the award-winning L.A. staple it is today. Our support system includes 70 employees, many of whom also left their family behind in search of opportunity. I’ve always wanted to advocate for them, but whenever immigrant issues came up, such as the fight to allow California’s undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, I couldn’t say or do anything. I was afraid of calling too much attention to myself. Deep down, I also didn’t see the point of speaking up. After all, I couldn’t even vote.

It was feelings of alienation such as these that led me back to Mexico at age 19. I thought I needed to go back and fight for what I wanted. I attended college there but soon realized that as much as I loved my homeland, it wasn’t where I belonged. I saw the reasons my dad left—corruption, drugs, insecurity— and felt lucky to have a home in the U.S. Here, we’ve been able to work hard and make our dreams a reality. My dad didn’t have papers and couldn’t speak English when he opened the restaurant, yet he created something. We owe everything we have to this country. That’s why I chose to start my own family here.

I used to think that my daughters’ lives were very different from my own. I grew up as an outsider in a strange land—my parents worked from sunup to sundown to make a living while I took care of my younger siblings. On the other hand, my girls were born in L.A., attend a bilingual immersion school, and have friends of all backgrounds. How could they ever feel that they don’t belong?

But, in reality, our nation is not always tolerant, and my daughters might sometimes be judged by the color of their skin and their Mexican roots. There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment out there; closet racists will target anyone who looks a little different. I want to protect my family, and voting is the first step. When my girls are old enough, I will tell them that my first vote was during a time of great transition, when Latinos, “the sleeping giant,” woke up and realized we had a say in the future of this country and a new sense of belonging that led us to speak up.

I’ve already begun talking to Krista about this election. When I got my voting paperwork in the mail, I placed it on the fridge door next to her school drawings. She asked me what it was. I explained, “The country will be choosing a new president soon, and Mami is going to help.” She was so excited. She doesn’t really understand right now, but I plan to take her inside the voting booth with me on November 8 and show her how it’s done.

I’m still wrapping my head around my new status. I’ve never voted for anything my whole life. I didn’t know how primaries worked; I didn’t realize that you had to go to a specific location to vote. But I did all my research on the candidates and I’m ready to make my voice heard.

Voting for a Change

A record 27 million Latinos are eligible to vote this year. Nearly half are millennials like these Latina moms, who share why they’re headed to the polls.

"I’m voting because I’m worried about the middle class. I want to live in a country where my kids don’t have to worry about paying crazy amounts for health care and that is more proactive about raising wages and helping families create stability." — Paola Chen, 30, Dominican; Ft. Riley, Kansas

"The Civil Rights era wasn’t that long ago, but it’s nuts to think that in 2016 people are still judging you by the color of your skin or your background. That sentiment has been brought out in this election. I hope my son doesn’t have to grapple with that in the future." — Bricia Lopez, 31, Mexican-American; Los Angeles

"I know too many people who don’t have the right to vote, so I have to use mine." — Janice Torres, 34, Puerto Rican; New York City

"I started voting as soon as I turned 18. Education is big for me—I’m a single mom of a 6-year-old boy, so having good schools that enhance his future is important." — Melinda Cruz, 27, Dominican; Pocono Township, Pennsylvania

"I want my sons to understand the value of civic engagement and how voting can change the course of an entire country." — Laura Ortiz, 29, Mexican-American; Denver